Korea Watch

Portrait of Professor Katharine Moon

Photo by Richard Howard

Mounting tensions in North Korea are keeping Katharine Moon busy. From an interview with Bloomberg, to a segment on C-SPAN, to writing an op-ed for CNN.com, she’s a go-to source for the media looking for insight into the impact North Korea’s advancing nuclear and missile threats could have on the world.

“This is a country to be taken seriously,” says Moon, a professor of political science. “We’re in the middle of an international crisis with no good option.”

Tough sanctions are needed, she adds, but may only serve to remind the world that North Korea’s behavior is unacceptable. North Korea knows how to operate as an isolated economy, and it’s committed to its nuclear program. Moon says she has no delusions that sanctions will actually work. “We’re stuck,” she says.

Developments in North Korea are top-of-mind for Moon, who’s also the Edith Stix Wasserman Professor of Asian Studies, as she digs deep into another timely topic for Korea: migration. She’s at work on a book about “new Koreans”—the thousands of immigrants who’ve flooded into South Korea since the 1990s from across Asia, Eastern Europe, and Africa looking for work, plus North Korean migrants—and how they’re affecting politics. It’s on track to be the first book that looks at these immigrants through a political lens.

“For thousands of years, South Korea has been linguistically homogenous, and now it’s facing this diversification of languages and cultures and religions,” says Moon, who was born in the U.S. but lived in South Korea through her teenage years.

Migrants from China, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan are filling jobs South Koreans would rather not do, what Moon calls the “three D’s—dangerous, dirty, and dull,” and are forming political communities. Migrant women are marrying men in rural areas who can’t find Korean women willing to spend their lives tending chickens or unearthing potatoes on a farm. Immigrants are becoming citizens; rural areas are becoming more multiethnic.

‘[North Korea] is a country to be taken seriously. We’re in the middle of an international crisis with no good option.’

During multiple trips to the Koreas, Moon has spoken with dozens of immigrants, activists, and government officials. “I’m trying to get at, how do immigrants understand political participation and democracy?” And, as a young democracy, can South Korea successfully encourage newcomers to participate in politics?

Moon has already seen potential obstacles and will tackle those in her book, while offering policy recommendations. For instance, she’s seen immigrants from Mongolia, the Philippines, and Vietnam form loose social and political networks, while observing that many North Korean immigrants prefer to operate on their own. Other significant migrations from around the world that have transformed politics are informing her view: the influx of Russians into Israel after the fall of the Soviet Union, and Cuban Americans’ impact on U.S.-Cuba relations.

Her book research dovetails nicely with her recently revamped course, POL2 383, The Politics of International Migration. Students learn the why, where, when, and how of migration, kicking off the class by writing their own migration stories. The course delves into types of migration, using text and film to introduce students to Bangladeshi villagers who’ve fled their homes after tidal floods and health-care workers leaving India for better opportunities.

One student, while working on her migration narrative, learned that her grandfather’s uncle built Boston’s Callahan Tunnel, naming it after his son who died in Italy during World War II. Other students have had similar revelations, helping to shape both their understanding of immigration and their sense of self. “The project carries students all the way through the class, if not their lives,” says Moon.

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